A matter of perspective

Perspective

Psalm 73

When we’re walking down at Dysart it’s impossible to ignore the two oil rigs sitting cheek by jowl along the coast off Methil. They’re something of a blot on the landscape, spoiling the view of Largo Bay; but I suppose they provide work for some people, and in these difficult times that’s important. However, about ten days ago we had a walk at Lower Largo, along the old railway line that took people on their holidays to the East Neuk fishing villages in the “good old days” before the Beeching cuts of the 1960s. From there we got a totally new perspective. The rigs that look so close together, when seen from Dysart, are in fact roughly half a mile apart. They’re not as close to one another as we’d formerly believed. We’d been seeing things from the wrong perspective.

The psalmist Asaph had a similar experience in Psalm 73. He knows deep down that God loves His people. He says as much in the opening verse: “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” But, as Asaph looks at the world around him, it doesn’t seem like that! It’s the bad people who get on well in life. They’re the ones who’re prosperous and successful. “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from common human burdens; they are not plagued by human ills” (3-5). And because they get away with it, they go from bad to worse!

Verses 6-9 paint a terrible picture of their arrogance: “Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. From their callous hearts comes iniquity; their evil imaginations have no limits. They scoff, and speak with malice; with arrogance they threaten oppression. Their mouths lay claim to heaven, and their tongues take possession of the earth.” Because no human authority stops them in their tracks, they assume that they’ll face no divine sanctions either. Verse 11: ‘They say, “How would God know? Does the Most High know anything?”’

Faced with these circumstances, Asaph concludes that it’s a waste of time being faithful to God. “Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and have washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been afflicted, and every morning brings new punishments” (verses 13-14). “I’m the loser,” he complains. “I’m the one who suffers – even though I’ve done nothing wrong! Why do I bother? I’m the fool around here!”

But is he? No sooner are these words out of his mouth than he regrets them. He’s letting the side down. “If I had spoken out like that, I would have betrayed your children” (15). His mind is in turmoil. Verse16: “When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply….” It’s doing his head in, we might say today. But then comes the turning point: “I entered the sanctuary of God…” (17a). Asaph finally gains the correct perspective. He begins to see things clearly: “then I understood their final destiny” (17b). As he listens to God’s Word alongside God’s people, he realises the true situation. He discovers how fragile the prosperity of the wicked is in verses 18-20: “Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! They are like a dream when one awakes; when you arise, Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.”

The final verses of the psalm show Asaph wondering how he could have got it so wrong. “Why was I so stupid?” How could he have gone so close to making such a stupid blunder, when he should have been aware of God’s loving presence? Speaking to God, he says, “When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you. Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you.  But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign Lord my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds” (21-28).

Significantly, the final verse has the psalm’s only reference to the Lord, Yahweh, the God of the covenant, the One who had saved His people from slavery in Egypt. Through Moses, He had promised to be with His people. The Temple, with all the rituals of its worship, was a constant reminder of these wonderful truths. It was there, therefore, that Asaph began to see things aright. He finally viewed things from the correct perspective. We are in an even more privileged position than Asaph. This side of the Cross and Resurrection we can see things even more clearly. God has made Himself known to us in Jesus, who left heaven’s glory and came to be our Saviour and Lord. Whatever problems life throws at us… however badly other people treat us… our Lord is with us every day. We must never lose sight of that glorious fact.